Rattlesnakes + Part 14 (cont)

~*~

Life settled into a rhythm. Duo got a job stocking shelves at a hardware store just four blocks from their apartment. It was owned by an older couple, and run by their son. The family took to Duo and his humorous candor right away, especially since he knew the merchandise as well as they did. He worked from six in the morning until twelve, and then he and Trowa had lunch together. Trowa would leave in the morning while Duo was still asleep in his bed. Each morning he left later and later, until he was starting his runs almost a full hour later than he had started to initially. He would come back to an empty apartment, and for lack of anything better to do, he would tidy up. It was too small a space to get dirty, really, as they would be living in their own filth if they let it go even a little, but Duo usually did not pick up after himself in the morning, so Trowa always had a little something to clean up.

He would make lunch. He made sandwiches and other foods associated with lunch. He always made salads, too. Duo had gotten used to eating greens at the treatment center, and Trowa thought it was a good habit to continue. The salad was the best part of the meal to prepare, because it entailed cleaning and cutting vegetables, a very sanitary process. He disliked making sandwiches with meat, because he had developed an aversion to the slick feeling of the slices in his hands, but he made sure that their meals had enough nutrients to sustain them.

Duo always had stories about his morning. This customer or that mix-up with the order. It was just mindless chatter, just the result of Trowa being quiet and letting Duo talk. What was astonishing was that, over time, Trowa had stories to tell of his mornings, too. Usually, about traffic, or some strange looking student he saw. They often laughed about the shabbily dressed students slinking back from whatever dorm they had spent the night to their home dorm. It seemed so utterly juvenile to both of them.

In the afternoon, Duo would leave for his sessions, and Trowa would sit in front of the computer to study. His classes weren't hard, and the adjustment to the structured learning was remarkably simple after spending so much time in a cube working for the Preventors. In fact, the rigors of class work made much more sense than most of the corporate-styled policies of the Preventors.

Once a week, Trowa would go to Dr. Levy's office for an hour in the afternoon, and he would patiently endure as Dr. Levy picked through his brain. Their sessions were dry and formal, and Trowa appreciated each effort. He wasn't sure that there was much that was getting accomplished, but it was irrelevant. It was the journey.

In the evening, they would sometimes watch tv, sometimes go out, sometimes read together, and sometimes go for a walk. The evenings were more open. Sometimes, Duo would needle Trowa into calling Catherine. Sometimes, Duo would call Hilde or Howard. On the weekends, they often saw either Wu Fei or Relena. They always talked to both of them.

There was a rhythm.

There were bad days when Duo was withdrawn and surly. Days when Trowa scratched at his arms, and resented Duo's presence in his life. When the space they occupied seemed a fraction of the size that they needed, and the two of them seemed to be completely incompatible. There were times when neither of them wanted to go about his day, or deal with anyone, even each other.

It never seemed to interrupt their sex life. Sometimes, it was like mindless rutting, and sometimes it was indescribable and beautiful, but they collectively viewed it as something necessary to quench their appetite, and nothing disturbed that.

Trowa sometimes felt like he was just getting to know Duo. It was like he was rediscovering things about his lover that he had never known. He got better at reading the other man's moods, and he gradually became aware that Duo was getting better at reading his moods. They were starting to grow accustomed to each other on a minute - to - minute basis.

Duo was always enthusiastic about helping Trowa study, and was fascinated by the way that the textbooks described things he had assumed were common knowledge. Trowa found Duo's raw intellect to be utterly beguiling, and if he were not already in love with Duo, discovered the workings of his mind would have surely seduced him. Before tests, Duo would hold the textbooks and help Trowa cram, asking him question after question, until the questions devolved into discussion, which were always more enlightening than his readings of the materials. He became addicted to the way that Duo approached problems, and found himself mimicking Duo when he went to solve problems himself.

It wasn't idyllic. Most of the time, Trowa felt like they were both working all the time at just keeping the status quo. He thought that was why they were so hungry for sex all the time - it was their only time to just release the tensions of the day.

It was better than any other time of Trowa's life.

They talked about the future when the lights were out, and they were buried in the sheets and blankets and each other's limbs. They spoke quietly, so that only they could hear, and Trowa could never see Duo's face during these conversations, only feel his body against his own.

They avoided certain topics. Their licenses, or lack thereof, loomed large and ignored in their conversations. Sometimes, they had to work hard to not speak of them.

The colonies were connected by shuttles, but the shuttles ran infrequently due to the expense of maintaining large transport vehicles. Instead, smaller crafts were common, and most people traveled from colony to colony, and cluster to cluster, in these small ships, most of which were not fitted to travel to Earth. While one colonial cluster was generally self-sufficient, that didn't mean that each colony in the cluster was self-sufficient, so travel between colonies was quite common.

As a result, life in the colonies often depended on the ability to pilot one's self from point to point, something that would be tricky if just Trowa had a license, and impossible if neither of them did.

They ignored it, though. There was nothing they could do to ensure that they would be granted their licenses back, and nothing they could do if they couldn't get them back. It was just understood that there was this concern that would potentially muck up all of their plans.

They never spoke of Une or her offer. It was enough that she was giving them the chance. That was all either wanted.

When Duo first came home, they received a few calls from Heero, but Duo never accepted the calls, and he never returned them. Trowa enjoyed deleting them more than he should have, but he couldn't help the thrill of triumph that elevated him as the machine pinged 'message deleted.'

Trowa brushed Duo's hair every night, burying his fingers in the thick tresses as he gently pulled the brush down its length. Duo would get quiet as Trowa worked, and when Trowa was done, Duo would turn to him and smile.

Even just that one smile a day was enough for Trowa.

~*~

Trowa had gone with him that afternoon, despite Duo's protests. He brought along some chemistry to read over while he waited in the car, but he only held the book open on the steering wheel as he watched the door restlessly.

It was Duo's last session, and it seemed monumental in an abstract way.

Duo had been nervous that day, eating his lunch by tearing it into pieces and chewing like a squirrel on the pieces. It had been adorably annoying, and Trowa had chewed especially quietly so he could enjoy the full experience.

Dr. Levy had ended their sessions two weeks earlier. Dr. Levy had abruptly announced that they had achieved everything they could hope to, and that continuing the sessions would only serve to placate Trowa's fears. Dr. Levy was too professional to be concerned with offending Trowa, which was one of the reasons that Trowa responded to him so well. They ended amicably, and Dr. Levy even wrote him a letter recommending that his license be reinstated.

It was an entirely beneficial arrangement.

Duo's sessions seemed different, though. Trowa wasn't sure, but the thought that Duo opened up to Dr. Mahoney quite openly. He knew that Duo hadn't told her all the details of his terrible mission, but he had given her the bones of it, and he seemed to enjoy his time with her. For the past two weeks, Duo had been vacillating between melancholy and anxiety when he anticipated the cessation of his therapy, so Trowa was certain he didn't want to leave Duo alone to deal with it.

It felt like much longer than two hours before Duo reappeared, carrying a gift bag, a small vase of daisies, and a file folder.

Trowa got out of the car to help Duo in, but Duo got the door open before he could get his book stored, and so then he had to slide back into the car to help Duo put his packages down so he could buckle up.

"How did it go?" Trowa kept his voice neutral as he peeked inside the gift bag. It seemed to consist of housewares.

Duo sighed, blushing just at the tips of his ears. "She gave me a going away present. She said... she said that she was proud of me." Duo ducked his face away as he clicked the buckle into place. "She got us stuff for the 'house' for when we move to the colonies. It's mostly earthbound stuff people on this rock think people in the colonies need." Duo seemed to be apologizing with his tone.

Trowa smiled faintly. "That's nice."

"Yeah," Duo shakily agreed. "She was really nice. She said... she said that she was available at any time, day or night. She gave me her 'special' number. And we... well, we covered the end stuff. You know, what to expect for the future, what I was looking forward to, that sort of thing."

Trowa watched Duo guardedly. He wasn't usually this forthcoming about his sessions.

"She was really nice. Really smart. She knows her shit, you know? I'm... I'm going to miss her." Duo swallowed hard, and looked away.

Trowa put his hand on Duo's knee. "I know."

Duo sniffed, but Trowa could see that it was just his sinuses. He started the car, slowly shifting into reverse. "Want to pick up a pizza and stay in bed all night?"

Duo nodded, smiling against the glass of the window. "Yeah. Thanks."

Trowa pulled out his cell phone, and handed it to Duo. He drove a little slow, so that the pizza would be ready by the time they got there.

When they made love that night, Duo took the lead, covering Trowa's body with his caresses. There was some part of Trowa's brain that understood why Duo was being so aggressively tender, but he wasn't able to form words with his thoughts, and the nebulous comprehension slipped in and out of his grasp.

Trowa slept with his face on Duo's chest that night, Duo's hands running through his hair, and he as he drifted off, he thought that there was something in the way that Duo was holding him that indicated that Duo knew how much he trusted him.

~*~

"Open it."

Trowa nodded, his hands frozen in his lap. He continued to stare at the simple white envelope, waiting to see if perhaps it would do something interested.

"Open it."

Duo was getting impatient. He was staring at Trowa, his brow furrowed. He had only a few minutes before he had to leave for his session, and he wanted to know what the answer was before he went.

Trowa continued to stare at the envelope.

Duo sighed. "Can I open it?"

Trowa blinked, and looked up at Duo. Something in his expression must have indicated a positive response, or else Duo's question was rhetorical. Duo swiped the envelope off the bedspread, and ripped it open.

Trowa watched Duo's face as he read the single sheet of paper that had been safely ensconced in the envelope. He watched every twitch of Duo's nose, the way the corners of his eyes would crinkle as he read, the flickers of motion in Duo's lips, and the way that Duo's fingers moved over the edges of the paper.

He didn't have the slightest clue what to do with all of that information, but he watched.

Duo put the sheet of paper down, and smiled at Trowa.

Trowa leaned back, sighing.

"You're going to be a doctor."

Trowa felt himself smiling before he was consciously aware of being happy. Everything about the last forty seconds kept replaying and replaying against the backdrop of his senses. He could hear the envelope being ripped open and then Duo's voice warm with pride washing over him. He swallowed hard, thinking that he should say something, but he had nothing to say.

Duo leaned over and kissed his nose. "I'm going to be living with a doctor." Duo wiggled his eyebrows, and Trowa heard himself laughing even as he was analyzing the humor.

He really hadn't expected to pass.

~*~

Duo's hands were unnaturally still in his lap. His back was so stiff, it made Trowa tense to look at him. He hadn't blinked for nearly three minutes. Trowa said nothing to comfort him, nor took any action to relax him. He was too tense himself to make the attempt.

Their names were on the bottom of the list for the afternoon's cases, right next to each other. The judge had already dispatched three people in rapid succession, displaying a gruff fairness that was not promising.

Trowa was reasonably confident that his request for reinstatement would be granted. Dr. Levy had signed off on it, he had seven months of taking his meds regularly behind him, and he had had no hospitalizations in over a year. Duo was quite still as he watched the proceedings with wide-eyed panic. Duo was convinced that he would not be reinstated; despite that, he had refused to allow Une to speak on his behalf at the hearing, and had in fact put his foot down against anyone attending in support. Duo had not said so in words, precisely, but he was of the opinion that if he was not considered safe to pilot by the law, then he shouldn't be piloting. It was as simple as that.

It was difficult to say what to expect. The judge barely looked at anyone who milled before his bench. He picked up one file folder after the other, shuffling the papers around inside and then shoving them off to the other side of his bench. He looked like a man who might, at one time, have been military, and was now letting his later years slip by before his eyes as he droned through the routine of his daily life.

Trowa pondered the possibility of pitying him, but the most emotional reaction he could muster was vague disgust.

His name was called first. He stood straight up and did not look at Duo as he approached the bench. He could sense that Duo was watching his every move, and it made him nervous enough. He stood at the podium before the bench, and calmly looked up at the judge.

The judge's hair was black, with grey around the edges of his hairline, and it was slicked back so that it shone. His hair was thinning, so there were thick, oily streaks of hair boldly traversing his head, only partially masking the skin of his scalp. His cheeks drooped below his jaw line, and his chin had a strange folding that might have been a dimple on a less stocky man. He wore thick glasses with outdated plastic framed, and when his dreary eyes lifted to look at Trowa, he looked over the rim of the frames, his head still bent over the paperwork in his hands.

"Mr. Barton?"

"Yes, sir."

"Your license was revoked due to psychological instability. You have taken measures to address the core problems associated with your condition?" The judge badly needed to clear his throat, and Trowa had to fight against wincing as his voice rumbled over the court.

"Yes, sir."

"You have a long record for a man so young..." The judge's voice trailed off in implicit suspicion, but as there was no question directed at him, Trowa did not respond. "And you were a pilot in the war."

Trowa nodded briefly, his eyes narrowing. The judge appeared to be reading the papers on his bench, but his eyes were fixed on Trowa.

"Very well. Your doctor has approved your reinstatement, and I see nothing in your record to indicate an untrustworthiness that would be compromising. Take care, young man." He banged his gavel, and shoved the paperwork off in the direction of his aide. "Next. Duo Maxwell."

Trowa stepped down, and went back to his seat. He looked at Duo as he passed him, trying to catch his eye. Duo was staring straight ahead, so he didn't bother trying to smile for him.

Trowa could not see Duo's face as the hearing continued, but he watched the judge carefully. He was sitting up more distinctly as he looked down on Duo, and Trowa felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He had to swallow down a swell of protective rage as he watched the judge size up Duo.

"So. Mr. Maxwell. I see here that you have a history of abusing illegal narcotics. And several accidents that occurred while you were flying under the influence of illegal narcotics. And a history of hospitalizations as a result of overdosing on illegal narcotics, the last incident no more than thirteen months ago. Is this all correct?" The judge spoke louder than he had to Trowa, and more distinctly as well. Trowa narrowed his eyes as he watched, gently repressing the urge to rip the man's face off.

"Yes, sir, that is all sadly true." Duo was not apologizing for his past, nor was he attempting in any way to explain it. He was showing remorse, but he was not begging to be forgiven. Trowa leaned back in his chair, feeling rather proud of Duo.

"Mr. Maxwell. It would be very... rare for me to reinstate a pilot with your record."

"I understand that, sir."

"You, too, have a longer flight record than your age would suggest. And you also served in the war."

"Yes, sir, that is correct."

The judge was breathing loudly enough to be heard in the back, his nose puffing out with each breath. He leaned back in his chair, propping his chin up on his hand. "You have connections to powerful people, people who could force my hand here, but you stand before me alone. You provide for me something of an enigma, Mr. Maxwell.

"My son served in the war, as did I. My son was a mechanic stationed at Ft. LaGunia. He died in the service of his country, after an attack from a Gundam. He died with honor. He had been transferred there just before the attack from L2. He had requested the transfer because he couldn't stand the poverty and the oppression of the people of L2. He even told me that he had visited an orphanage, wanting to volunteer his time with the children, but they turned him away because of his uniform."

Duo reached up to clutch the edges of the podium. His back was stiff, and his whole body, even his braid, seemed to turn to stone. Trowa wished that he could see Duo's face. He wished that he recognized the name Ft. LaGunia.

"The Gundam left nothing behind of the base. Nothing but smoldering wreckage. I never got my son's body back, just a medal, and a letter signed by Treize Khushrenada. I went to L2 after the war. I was assigned as part of the team that rebuilt the colonies.

"Do you remember Ft. LaGunia, Mr. Maxwell?"

"Of course I do." There was a fervent tension to Duo's voice, and Trowa closed his eyes and looked away.

"I thought as much." The judge sighed and picked up the papers again. "The people of L2 all think of you as a hero. They think of you as a savior. That's a responsibility, Mr. Maxwell. That's your burden to bear, and I'm sure it isn't easy. But you owe it to the people of L2, and to my son, to bear that burden with dignity. I don't want to be proven wrong here. You owe that to me, now, as well. I'm granting you a reinstatement, on the condition that your license will be examined every year for the next ten years, and any serious infraction of the law will result in permanent loss of license. Do you understand, Mr. Maxwell?"

"Y-yes, yes sir, thank you."

The judge stared at Duo, his eyes piercing. "Make them all proud, Mr. Maxwell."

Duo nodded, leaving the podium hesitantly, continually looking back to see if there would be anything more. When the next name was called, he hurried to the door and slipped out. Trowa followed him, picking up their jackets as he went.

Duo was just outside the courtroom door, his back against the wall. He was breathing deeply, his hands pressed palms down against the wall, his eyes wide open and staring straight ahead. Trowa leaned on his side against the wall, and watched Duo for a moment.

"Are you all right?"

Duo blinked. "What the hell just happened in there?"

"He gave us back our licenses."

Duo turned to look at Trowa. "What was all that about his son? I thought for sure he was going to blame me..."

Trowa pondered. "Maybe he understood that we were just doing what we had to."

Duo folded his arms over his chest protectively. "I don't know. I... I don't know. That was..."

"Yeah." Trowa reached out and took Duo's hand, running his thumb over Duo's. Duo turned to him, and put his chin on Trowa's shoulder.

"That was weird. If you had a son that was killed in the war, would you give his killer a break?"

Trowa tried to imagine himself with a son, but it was so far outside his context of comprehension, he eventually chose to view Duo's question as rhetorical.

They had to stop by the clerk's desk, and get their paperwork. They had to wait nearly an hour in line just to get their names on the list of people waiting, and then another forty-five minutes before everything was drawn up and notarized for them to take. If they waited another hour and a half, they could also get their licenses right away, but neither saw the point. They could just go into the regulatory office of any airstrip and have their licenses printed up.

They weren't flying anywhere that night.

Duo was still tense when they got home, so Trowa used it as an excuse to get Duo to lie naked on the bed while he massaged him. The repetitive motions of his fingers over Duo's skin rendered the skin separate from the whole of Duo's body, and Trowa became entranced by the image of his flesh and Duo's merging.

Duo was lax in his arms as he prepared him, as if his strength were all gone. He tried to grasp at Trowa with his fingertips, but Trowa was slipping out of his touch too easily. Trowa took full advantage, and paid homage to Duo in full over the course of the evening, pressing his lips and his fingers to Duo's body with adoration.

When they were both too tired to move anymore, Duo put his head on Trowa's chest, and fell asleep. Trowa tried to keep his heavy eyelids open so that he could enjoy running his fingers through the long expanses of Duo's hair, but even that immeasurable pleasure was not enough to fight off sleep forever.

In Trowa's dreams, he and Duo were living in a yellow ship in the sky, and they were naked all the time, making love against the archaically ornate levers of the ship's cockpit as they sailed through space above everyone.

~*~

Trowa took one last spin through the apartment. They had shipped out the last box that could be shipped that morning on their way to delivering the car to its new owner. They had walked back, taking a detour through the park where they had eaten together when they were Preventors. Trowa had looked around for the man, keeping a sheltering closeness to Duo as they walked, but he hadn't seen him.

He probably wouldn't have said anything anyway.

Their apartment was now depressingly bare. They didn't even have a bed anymore; the student that Trowa sold it to wasn't able to meet them in the morning to pick it up, so they had let him take it away before they had dropped off the car. There were only a few bags left, and a blanket spread out on the floor with pillows in the corner. It wouldn't be the most comfortable night's sleep for either of them, but it would be a far cry from the worst night also.

Duo was in the kitchen, cleaning the cabinets with disposable clothes he had gotten at the store. For some reason, he had been particular about cleaning the apartment himself. Trowa didn't know where that had come from, but he didn't see any reason to interfere either.

The bathroom was spotless, after all.

Spinning around the apartment for the last time was making Trowa dizzy, so he sat down on the blanket and waited for Duo to finish in the kitchen. They had made a schedule for their departure, and they were currently two hours ahead. Trowa wasn't sure what they were going to do with the remaining time, but he wasn't sure a blanket on a bare floor would be up to the task of entertaining them, so he started to try to remember what movies were currently playing.

Duo was drying his hands on his pants when he came out of the kitchen. "I think I've cleaned everything that needs cleaning. Actually, I don't think that there's anything left to clean. This is a damn small apartment."

Trowa lifted his hand in an invitation to Duo. "It served its purpose."

Duo smiled warmly at him, but didn't sit down. "Yeah, I'm sure it's bustin' with pride about that fulfilled utility deal."

There was a nervousness in Duo's attempt at humor, and Trowa leaned back on his elbows, confused. "What?"

Duo looked away. "Man... I've been putting this off, and now there's nothing left on the list to do. We should have made a longer to do list. Damn!"

Trowa waited patiently for Duo to come to the point.

With a sigh, Duo sat down next to him, only half of him sitting on the blanket. "I... There's someone I need to see. To say goodbye to. For... closure."

Trowa felt cold. He looked away, nodding once. "Therapy assignment?"

"More like a suggestion," Duo sighed miserably. "A too damn good one."

Trowa nodded. "Let me come with you?" He hadn't intended to speak so softly, but he found that his voice was unreliable otherwise.

Duo put his face in his hands, digging his fingertips into his scalp along his hairline. "Ah, I really wish that you could... But I think that will only make things worse."

There was an undeniability to it that rendered Trowa speechless.

He wondered why Duo wasn't getting up to leave. He didn't want to look at Duo right now, only because he was afraid of what Duo would see, and he wished that Duo would just go so that he could be alone with his thoughts.

Duo climbed into his lap, and put his arms around his neck. They kissed, their mouths anxious and needing. Duo rubbed his face against Trowa's like a cat would, and squeezed Trowa tightly. Trowa's arms had automatically gone around Duo's waist, and for a second, everything else was eclipsed by the momentary perfection.

"Do you know what the most amazing thing in the universe is?"

Duo's question sounded rhetorical, nothing more than a breathy whisper against Trowa's ear, and so he did not feel badly about not having a response.

"You fell in love with me." Duo smiled, and leaned back so that he could look into Trowa's eyes.

Trowa involuntarily smiled back.

"I can't wait to get off this stinking rock and start living our lives together."

Trowa wanted to push Duo down onto the floor, and take off all his clothes with his teeth. He wanted to stare into Duo's eyes as he moved inside of him, he wanted to taste Duo's skin as it cooled down after an orgasm. He wanted to hold Duo and not let go.

He put his hand on the back of Duo's neck, and took a kiss from Duo's lips. He smiled as genuinely as he was capable of, and nodded. "Do you want to bring dinner home on your way back, or should we go out?"

Duo hugged Trowa, which somehow felt more intimate than sex just for a second. "Let's stay in. Our last night together in this place."

Trowa felt Duo slipping out his grasp, and the most he could do was to not clamp down on Duo's hands as they passed over his. He didn't get up to let Duo out, watching the door as Duo snuck through it, waiting for the clicks of the locks being tumbled back into place.

He stared at the door for a long time after Duo had left. The room was getting progressively darker, and as he sat there, he got progressively colder.

He tried to analyze what he was feeling, already in his mind organizing it the way that he would present it to Dr. Levy, were he still seeing Dr. Levy. He wasn't upset that Duo was going. On the contrary, it had occurred to him over the past few weeks that the last time that Duo had seen Heero was when Heero gave him the drugs. He had thought about how Duo might need to see Heero before they left, but it was something that turned out to be very easy to not think about much.

It wasn't that he was jealous, or afraid of what might go on between Duo and Heero, at least not romantically. He didn't even need Duo's reassurance before he left, although he never turned away from an opportunity to have Duo in his arms. Duo had just worked too damn hard to go back to Heero at this point.

It wasn't that he was afraid that Heero might tempt Duo into more self-destructive behavior. Even when Duo was having his worst moments of weakness, he never really seriously considered having a drink or a smoke. He might make jokes from time to time about drugs, but he struck Trowa as being afraid to slip again. Trowa had faith that Duo was strong enough to stay the course.

He was worried about Duo physically. Heero had been abusive in the past, and he might do so again. Trowa would have liked to be near, just in case Heero tried to hit Duo, but in reality Duo was probably right that Heero would only be angrier to see Trowa there, and anyway, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot Trowa could do save the use of lethal force if Heero decided to get violent. Heero was just better at close range violence than either Trowa or Duo.

There seemed to be something fundamentally wrong with Duo saying goodbye to Heero.

Trowa stopped to consider that. During the war, he had gotten accustomed to thinking of Duo and Heero as a team, even as much as he grew to accept Quatre and himself as a team. It wasn't that he felt like he was an interloper in Duo and Heero's relationship, or that he felt like the two of them should give it another try. There was just a sense of melancholy that things had gotten so far out of hand that now Duo would be severing his relationship with Heero entirely.

Trowa stood up, stretching his hands above his head. There was something definitely wrong with that, but it was the way life had turned out. He had long ago given up the luxury of regret, so there was little else to do once he had acknowledged the source of his malaise other than to move past it.

He went to the window. There wasn't enough room on the ledge to sit, and the view was of the street, not the alley. Their street had a few stores on it that stayed open late, and there was the 24-hour gym at the end of the block, so there were enough neon lights and cars on the road that the street never got totally dark, and was rarely completely empty. In fact, if one were inclined toward people watching, it would be a near ideal location, as there were teeming masses of humanity crossing paths beneath Trowa's vision. There were some homeless kids on the other side of the street, joking around with each other and gearing up for the night. There was a group of what appeared to be sorority sisters standing outside the Senegalese restaurant, laughing and chatting before breaking up. There was a man waiting for a bus with his hands in his pockets, his whole body leaning against the pole with the bus sign, trying to hide his shivering. There was a woman trying to jog along with her black lab wearing nothing more than a sports bra and bike shorts that was being ogled by at least three men on the street.

Trowa didn't really care for people much, though, so he looked up, and tried to see the stars. The moon was a quarter full that night, and there were patchy clouds, but he could see one twinkling brightness, which, due to its luminosity, was almost certainly a colony. Trowa couldn't remember which one, though, because he couldn't get his bearings in the sky right. He had a vague idea of where each colony was positioned in relation to the Earth currently in their mutual orbits of the sun, but he needed something like the North Star or another fixed point to get his bearings.

He stared up into the sky, trying to remember how to extrapolate the orbits of the colonies based on the orbit of the moon relative to the Earth's orbit to the sun, but he could never get anywhere with his thoughts because he was too preoccupied with the understanding that Duo would instinctively be able to tell him which colony he was looking at without hesitation.

He heard the lock on the door click open, and the doorknob turning, but he waited at the window for Duo to come over to him.

He didn't even turn around when Duo put his arms around his waist, and leaned against him with his head on Trowa's shoulder. It was nice, and Trowa wanted to just relax in Duo's embrace.

He put his fingertip on the glass. "Which colony is that?"

Duo looked absently. "L3. That's three colonies from the edge of the cluster."

Trowa blinked. "How can you tell?"

"Mm, most of L3 isn't visible from this angle, so it would have to be colonies on the edge. And you can tell how many there are by the way the light flickers." Duo put his hand flat on Trowa's belly, splaying his fingers out.

Trowa frowned. "No, you can't."

Duo chuckled, which Trowa couldn't hear, but he could feel against his side. "Yes, you can. Howard showed me first night I landed on this rock. The flicker comes from the rotation of the colony on its axis, right? And all colonies rotate at the same speed... You live on a colony long enough, you set your watch by that rhythm, ya know? So you just keep time. The rotation of the colonies as observed from Earth will depend on how far away they are, so you adjust for which cluster it is... and the number of flickers per measure will form a beat that will tell you how many there in one 'star.'"

He paused an appropriate length of time for it to be considered thoughtful. "That's total crap."

Duo laughed, and pulled Trowa away from the window. "Says you. You don't even know L3 from L5."

Trowa retaliated with a quick tickle, which Duo deftly evaded, but only after he'd enjoyed it for as long as he had wanted to. "So."

"Yeah." Duo smiled at him sheepishly, turning away. "I picked up pizza slices on the way home. It seemed traditional." He sat down, setting the boxes of slices up as if they were having a picnic.

Trowa dutifully sat down, and opened the box that was clearly set aside for him. "Green peppers?"

Duo shrugged. "That was the only one that had no meat, but some toppings."

Trowa nodded, and took a bite. "So."

"Yeah," Duo sighed. "It's ok. Nothing bad happened..."

Trowa said nothing, but chewed very slowly.

Duo picked at his pizza, lifting the cheese off in tiny bites. "He was angry."

Trowa nodded, hoping that he appeared to be understanding.

Sighing, Duo looked away, his gaze gravitating to the window. "Things were said. You know the drill. I just feel like... I'm letting him down. He... needed some stress relief, you know? And that's what I was to him. But now I'm going away, and it's like I'm cutting him off..."

"He'd be better off without having you to relieve his stress you know." Trowa spoke to the wall to avoid saying it wrong.

Duo nodded. "I know that. But I still feel like... I mean, Heero's not like us, you know? He's a lot more... naive. I swear to fuckin' god, the look on his face was the same as a kid who's had a toy taken away because he wasn't behaving. He was just so... obstinate."

Trowa considered that carefully.

"I don't know. I don't want to be with him anymore. I guess I just think that it's too bad. He is... or at least, he was a really good person. I just don't know what went wrong." Duo's pizza drooped more and more until he had it resting on his hands in the box.

Trowa nodded. "He's resilient. It's hard, but he'll probably be better off learning to deal with things without a scapegoat."

Duo barked a hollow laugh. "You mean he's better off without me? Sure, that's a given."

"That's not what I meant," Trowa sulked. "He's just..."

"He hates me."

"He doesn't." Trowa wasn't sure why he was so quick to refute. He wasn't sure he even believed what he was saying. "He just blames you."

"For him being him? Yeah, given. But he's grown to hate me. I can see it. I just..." Duo flopped over gracefully, his head landing on Trowa's leg. Trowa used his cleaner hand to brush Duo's bangs out of his face. "It's sad. I can't help loving him, despite everything he's done to me. But he just hates me in return."

Trowa ran his fingers over the contours of Duo's face, tracing his cheekbones and his lips. He leaned over so he could look down into Duo's eye. "I'm sorry."

Duo tried to smile and shrug, which had the effect of making him look much cuter than a man his age and experience had any right to look. "It's ok. I've dealt with it. You'll never hate me, will you?"

Trowa smiled, his hand resting on Duo's neck. "No, not even after I die. I love you."

Duo closed his eyes and smiled. "I mean, I think it's safe to say that you already know the worst thing I've ever done, and you're still here..."

Trowa wanted to kiss Duo, but he didn't want to disturb him from his position either. "Yes."

"Do you think that we'll be together after we die?"

Trowa let the silence linger for a moment before speaking. "I think I'm more concerned with living with you right now. The dying can sort itself out."

Duo sighed contentedly, and pushed himself up. He was grinning from ear to ear, and there was something in his eyes that was nearly bursting. "I'm with you on that one."

They finished eating later, when they were hungrier, and even though Trowa would have liked to stay up to watch Duo sleep on their last night on Earth, it was far more comfortable to fall to sleep with him.

They needed to be well rested for the morning, after all.

~*~

Trowa put their keys in the envelope the landlord had given them, and stuck the envelope in the box next to the mailboxes. The cab was outside waiting for them, already packed. Duo was waiting in the cab, to make sure the driver didn't just take off with his stuff.

He went through the list, mentally checking off everything that needed to be done before they left. He lost his place, and then couldn't remember what else needed to be done.

He decided that if they forgot anything truly important, they could ask Wu Fei to take care of it for them.

Duo was too excited to grin or bounce in his seat. He had a focus in his eyes that Trowa hadn't seen since the war. He hadn't even realized until now that it had been missing. He took Duo's hand in his for his own comfort, and kept his eyes on their joined fingers.

It was a long drive out to the shuttle strip. It needed to be far enough away from city air traffic for the shuttles to reach the speed necessary for the exit window. Trowa thought of the distance in terms of the cost of the cab, equating it to the things they sold off. By the time they reached the strip, they had spent the money from the bed, Duo's cds, his porn tapes, his books that Quatre had sent him, and 1/15th of the car.

There was an interminable amount of paperwork to be done. They needed to have all their bags checked by Preventors customs agents. The two agents were slow and lazy, knowing that no shuttle ever went off without all of its passengers, so there was no rush.

Duo tapped his foot absently while pushing his bangs back, desperately trying not to sigh. His gaze kept drifting back to the widows that reached up to the ceiling, and the blue sky above.

It was the perfect day for a flight.

They had to check in at the small shuttle rental desk. There was paperwork to fill out, and bills to pay, and the clerk tried to sell them insurance, and then they had to take a short exam to be cleared for the day's flight, and then they needed to take a breathalyzer test to be sure they were not intoxicated.

Duo whispered under his breath to Trowa all the ways to bypass the breathalyzer, and all the drugs that wouldn't show up on any kind of test. He made sure to speak softly when no clerks or agents were around, so that no one would know how much he knew about it. Trowa put his hand on Duo's thigh as they waited for the results, granting them both a modicum of patience.

After that, there was the equipment check of the vessel. It was the smallest, dirtiest, oldest piece of crap that Trowa had ever piloted, and he felt like his nervous system would explode with excitement at the thought of being in control again.

There was an unfortunate amount of small talk with the strip's chief operator as everything was processed and they prepared for release. Duo had already pulled up the atmospheric conditions on the onboard computer, and was making the necessary calculations for determining exit velocity and trajectory absently as tapped with mute frustration on the keyboard.

"You boys have been to the colonies before."

There was more to that statement than a simple observation of experience, and Trowa wasn't sure whether it was a negative thing or not. The chief was too bland to elicit any kind of reaction from anyone. Trowa merely nodded, and Duo was too busy with his impatience to bother listening.

"It's a little rare for us to lease these things out for private use. You boys must have quite a living up there."

Trowa was a little tired of being referred to as 'you boys.' "It was a going away present from a friend." Quatre hadn't been able to attend the makeshift going away party that Relena had organized without their permission, so he had sent them a voucher instead. It was the sort of broad gesture of genuine kindness that had always endeared Quatre to Trowa in the past, although he had a better idea of how little it meant to Quatre now than he had during the war.

The chief whistled. "Some friend."

"Some days."

Duo smiled a little, laughing through his nose, and Trowa felt rather pleased with himself.

"You sure you don't need a flight partner? L5 is a long way off, and you never know what might happen to you on the way... With only the two of you, it could be a hard flight." He sounded genuinely concerned, so Trowa decided that he merited an honest response.

"I flew from the rock to L3 on my own for the first time when I was seven. I think we'll be fine."

Duo was amused enough at that to turn at look at Trowa appreciatively, and the chief got a good look at the two of them for the first time. If he had been able to push his flight chair back, he almost certainly would have. "I... I didn't realize..."

Duo rolled his eyes, and started to plot the flight plan from Earth to L5 while playing with his hair.

The chief swallowed. "Then I guess I won't bother asking to double check your calcs..."

"Go right ahead," Duo offered, sending his work to the screen next to the chief with two quick clicks. Trowa was impressed with how familiar Duo was with the equipment. He wasn't sure if it was because Duo had already flown in one of these glorified crop dusters before, or if it was because he was just that good with machines. He knew that Heero had thought that Duo was the most skilled pilot in their group, despite his lack of formal training, so Trowa was leaning to believe that Duo would know his way around any cockpit.

The chief stared at the screen with his mouth hanging open, trying to form words, for the longest time. "How... How... How did you do all this so fast?"

"Why?" Duo turned around lazily to look at him. "How long does it take you to do it?"

Trowa had to turn away to keep from laughing. The chief turned red, and clicked the calcs away, muttering something about colony brats. Duo smiled broadly, and turned back to the computer.

Finally, they got the go ahead, and the chief left them alone in the cockpit. Duo started the initiation sequence for the engines, and the vessel was beginning to vibrate as the engines powered up.

Both of them had taken seats in secondary positions, neither willing to commit to the pilot's seat without being sure. They looked each other in the eye for a moment before Trowa grinned, and indicated that Duo take it.

"You sure?" Duo was already standing up and moving the chair so he could get in, but he was taking the time to ask first.

"You're the better pilot," Trowa affirmed. "Besides, I like to watch you at work." He winked at Duo, and Duo actually blushed a little in response.

"All right... but just remember, it was your choice. I like to take off fast." Duo winked at Trowa as he sat down in the pilot's chair.

"I know," Trowa replied cheekily, and earned himself a laugh for his effort.

They went through the entire power up sequence, taking each step by the book, and then contacted the tower before getting into position for the launch sequence. The strip was set up like a tiny airport with freakishly long runways, because ships landing used every inch of runway length. All of the ships that were housed here took flying leaps so when they took off, they were up long before the end of the runway. They would need, though, to gain speed before they could begin rapid ascent, and so they needed plenty of real estate to get going.

They were busy with prelaunch operations right up to the first time they had a window announced. They weren't able to take advantage until the third time they were given a window, at which point Duo brought their ship to the top of the runway and called for final clearance.

Trowa had little to do at this point. A copilot was more essential in finesse maneuvers, like docking to a colony or shuttle, or threading through complex curves in the flight plan. For launches, though, a pilot was all that was necessary. Trowa had a few gauges up to help guide Duo, but it was all Duo's show, getting them into space.

Trowa kept one eye on the monitors, and one eye on Duo. The g-forces were at their worst, and he had to fight to even keep his eyes open. Duo's arms were like rock, holding the stick, keeping up the acceleration and keeping the nose up in the air.

It was like watching a film in flight school. Duo was just naturally a perfect pilot. Trowa felt his heart pounding as they hit exit velocity. They were leaving the rock behind them.

Soon, the windows were surrounded by blackness, and the crushing g-forces shoving them into their chairs dwindled as they left gravity behind.

"We're off." Duo sounded proud, and Trowa could hear the smile in his voice.

"Off and running." Trowa wanted to lean forward and kiss Duo, but it wasn't the time. Now they needed to get their flight plan programmed in, and set. They needed to negotiate through the higher traffic area around the rock, and get into the slot of their flight plan. They needed to set the proximity detectors and get all the equipment set to space flight standards.

It wasn't urgent. They had time later. They had their whole journey to get through.

~*~


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